Guinea 019

Wednesday, December 27 8:00 a.m.

I haven’t been able to find out as yet if the boy was seriously hurt or not. No one seems to know about that accident but me. Either the boy was not hurt at all (from my vantage point that seemed very unlikely) or such accidents are so commonplace they don’t register anymore.

I cycled through Coyah (the origin of the famous Coyah brand of bottled water) from one end to the other but saw no place that might have rooms to rent. I’d seen several signs advertising “motels” on the way into town but I think they were situated a fair distance away. I’ve stayed in such places before and they are never satisfactory when you are by yourself. Too isolated and lonely.

I approached a group of men lounging under a tree and after the usual round of pleasantries asked if they knew of a hotel of any kind. They did and a pleasant man carrying a shortwave radio offered to show me where it was. He told me his name but when I stumbled over it badly he said that everyone called him “Papa.”

The Hotel Marianne was not at all obvious and I never would have found it on my own. Even if I’d stood right in front of it I’d not have seen it since there was no sign. As we approached it I thought it was a private residence. This impression was strengthened by our reception. Rather than show us a room a woman pulled out two chairs in a shaded hallway and Papa and I were urged to sit down. I was extremely hot, sweat soaked, beginning to feel strong hunger pangs, and only with difficulty kept my seat for the long wait that began. I questioned Papa but got no answer that made sense nor explained why we were just sitting there.

After an interminable wait during which I nearly jumped on my bike and cycled away several times a man suddenly appeared with a key and showed me a wonderful little room in a separate building. Now I was glad I’d been patient. The room had a nice bed, a little shower alcove with bucket, air conditioning, and even a table and chair. The toilet was down the hall in a small room absolutely swarming with mosquitoes but all in all I’d fallen into the lap of luxury. The table was the best thing. Till then I’d been using the rear pannier rack of my bike to write on. It served well but a table is a nice civilized touch.

The Hotel Marianne also had the advantage of location. It is situated away from the noisy main road in a neighborhood of quiet sandy roads and pathways only a short distance from the mountains whose cliffs rise comfortably above green jungle.

The Marianne did not offer food of any kind but Papa offered to show me a place “where all the tourists go.” I figured by the reception I got on the streets that the last tourist passing through must have been in 1992. Groups of people would look up when I cycled past and enter into animated discussion. For all the world they looked like birders arguing over the identification of a new species. There was always one know it all who would slap someone upside the head, berate him for his stupidity, and exclaim, “It’s obvious it’s a tourist. Look at the plumage, the skin white in some parts, burned red elsewhere. And the bags. Look at all the bags. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that if we captured him we’d find at least one camera, maybe two.”

“Ooh,” they’d all chorus, “a tourist” like they were discussing a rare appearance by a yeti.

“What’s a tourist?” the youngest would ask and the adults would chuckle indulgently.

“Ah, tourists,” the wisest and oldest of the bunch would sigh. “They do the strangest things. Why, I remember one time…”

By then I was passing out of view having secured my place in local legend.

The restaurant where all the tourists go was firmly closed. Papa and I wandered around from place to place but because of Ramadan nothing was open for business. Or so it seemed. It was hard to tell since Papa was spearheading the operation and the discussions were as long and animated as ever. I began to suspect that his help was falling firmly into the hindrance category. He was probably telling these people about the normal diet of tourists roast duck, beef tenderloin and quiche. I finally couldn’t take it anymore and took my destiny back into my own hands. With Papa in tow I roamed the market and picked up a long loaf of freshly baked bread, a bunch of bananas, five skewers of some kind of meat cooking on a charcoal grill, and a small tub of margarine. I brought my small hoard back to the Marianne and after arranging to meet Papa at 6:00 that evening settled down to my feast.

At 4:00 there was a banging on my door. It was Papa of course. Much too early for me. I was really in need of some private space as I’d spent hours with the Mouse and the other men talking in primitive French the previous day. But to my delight he’d brought his cousin and this man, Ali, spoke a fluent and natural English.

It brought home once again how central language is to a trip like this. Without a common language it’s like operating in the dark. Nothing makes sense at all. Everything is difficult and confusing almost beyond endurance. And the inability to communicate provides ample space for your fear, paranoia, and irritability to grow and feed one on the other. Till that point Coyah had not impressed me. Papa was driving me crazy. The activity around the Marianne confused me and I felt ill at ease, like an intruder. I had said I wanted the room for one night only and planned to cycle on in the morning.

But under Ali’s friendly tutelage everything around me suddenly made sense and Coyah was transformed from an unfriendly and perhaps dangerous place to a gentle and interesting small town with plenty of experiences to offer and lots to learn.

My lessons began right away. The Marianne, I learned, didn’t really function as a hotel anymore and most of the rooms had been taken over by family members. The field outside the entrance was not rice but green onions. The countryside around Coyah was filled with small farming villages. This man was the guard and in charge of security. That man ran the bar and dance club that the Marianne had in a back area. The women who wouldn’t talk to me were not unfriendly but simply didn’t speak French. I could run the air conditioner as much as I liked aside from one or two government houses they had no electricity meters in Coyah. Everyone paid a random flat fee. And most important I learned that it was the last day of Ramadan and the next day there would be a big celebration. All the women would plait their hair, put on fine new clothes and jewellery, and they would all eat and dance and eat all day and night.

About Ali I also learned much beginning with where he lived – a compound of small buildings with a well at the center only a short walk from the Marianne. We walked there through the cool dusky light, Ali translating the shouts and cries of the people we passed. What had struck my ears like Klingon battle challenges became in translation, “Welcome to Coyah,” “I hope your time passes well here,” and “How are you on this fine day my good friend?”

Ali started to learn his English here in Coyah at school and showed such aptitude he won a scholarship to London, England, where he lived for 18 years. He married a Welsh woman while there and they had two children. He was very content there but when both his mother and father died he was obliged to return to Guinea to take over the management of the family and family property. His father, like many Guineans, was a polygamist and had two wives and several children. But of them all only Ali had received an education and of them all was the only one who could read and write.

“Did you want to come back to Guinea?” I asked Ali. “Are you happy here or were you happier in London?”

“Oh, Douglas,” he said, “every day I regret coming back here. I regret it every single day. I could have stayed in London forever. I was not rich but I had my little bit of bread every day. The life of an African man is very hard.”

He returned to Guinea and got a job teaching at a private school in Coyah. He earned 200,000 francs a month out of which he took home 125,000.

We were talking just outside his small house, me on the chair of honor, he and some other members of his family on small stools. A pleasant banyan tree with wide rippling roots spread its branches over our heads. The neighborhood was in full swing and I quickly lost track of all the people whose hands I shook. Children raced past pulling kites made from plastic bags and sticks. The string was uncoiled tape from old music cassettes. A noisy fight broke out in a neighbouring house and Ali went to mediate but came back shaking his head. There was nothing to be done and the fight raged on. The street quieted as the sun went down and people returned home to break the day’s fast, the women eating separate from the men, all in circles around small communal pots. Ali’s small daughter pleaded with a large woman to plait her hair which currently stuck out in a tangled friz. She was worried about her appearance as the end of Ramadan approached. This woman was Ali’s current wife though they weren’t officially married yet. His Welsh wife had died here in Coyah in 1999.

His new wife’s name was Aisha and was from Sierra Leone. Like Ali she was proud of her English and gently teased some others who claimed to speak English but in fact spoke pidgin or Kriol. One tall man in traditional Muslim clothes and counting off a string of prayer beads came in for particular teasing. He was explaining to me why I found English speakers even among Guineans. I understood some but not all of what he said and Ali filled in the blanks where his pidgin lost me. Under Sekou Toure, Guinea’s first president, there was a lot of political persecution and trouble. They called him a “true dictator.” Hundreds of thousands of Guineans fled the country and ended up in countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and Ghana as refugees. They survived by selling on the street and picked up the variants of English spoken in those countries. When Toure died and Conte became president many of these refugees drifted back and brought their new English ability with them.

The neighbourly atmosphere continued as people passed on the street and Ali translated the exchanges. The tall boy who shook my hand was a bad boy. He’d taken Aisha’s bucket as part of an agreement to whitewash their house for the end of Ramadan but so far hadn’t done it. He’d used the bucket in whitewashing other houses and now refused to give it back.

The neighbourliness extended even into some formalities that Ali agreed with me should be accomplished as soon as possible. Our first stop was the mayor’s house where I stammered out my embarrassment of “ca vas” and “ca va biens”.

“Douglas,” cut in Ali. “That’s enough.”

It was only a formality to announce to the mayor my presence in Coyah and seek his permission to stay but Ali said it was very important to do so. Equally important was a visit to the local police station or “commissariat” where all my particulars were entered once more into a large black ledger. When I decided to leave Coyah I would have to return and inform the police that I was leaving.

This, combined with the apparently sparse accommodation, added to my growing feeling that attempting an epic journey throughout all of Guinea was not a very wise thing to do. It took an effort to find a place to live and find your feet and I dreaded the thought of doing it day after day after day, always a stranger, always lost, always reporting in. And why bother when there was just as much to experience here in this village as in the next village over the hill?

Over a meal of incredibly tough beefsteak Ali agreed with me. In his youth he had been an avid footballer and reached the national level where he travelled all over Guinea playing games. He knew the terrain and conditions well and shook his head in mirth.

“Oh, Douglas,” he laughed, “you have the whole Pacific Ocean to drink.” An ocean, apparently, of difficulties and pain.

 

Thursday, December 27 3:30 p.m.

A large part of the day has been lost to what people would call “Africa time.” Ali said yesterday that he would come to the Marianne at noon and he would take me on a small tour of Coyah. I made sure I was up early so that I could get my private time in before he showed up. I’d promised to come to L’Oriental Restaurant “where all the tourists go” for breakfast and there I enjoyed a cafe au lait and buttered bread and a small chat with the old man who ran the place. From what I know of the prices here I don’t think there was much profit in my 1,000-franc order for him. He purchased and opened a brand new tub of margarine and tin of condensed milk as well as one loaf of bread and a bit of coffee. With me likely being the only customer of the day he didn’t even have the advantage of buying in bulk.

I was back at my hotel in plenty of time for my 12:00 appointment but waited in vain. At 1:00 there was a knock and I opened the door to find Ali’s young son “Junior” standing there. I assumed he had a message from Ali but after a bit of back and forth in French it was plain he’d come on his own.

I invited him in and we chatted and then I remembered something Ali told me. He said that on the day Ramadan ended the children would go from door to door and greet you, expecting some small present in return. Feeling rather proud of myself for being so “in the know” about Guinean culture I gave him a Canadian flag lapel pin and a small amount of money.

There was more talk and I decided that Junior was inviting me out to play to play with small cars (“jouer avec petite voitures”). So I went with him and he brought me to his house. Aisha was sitting on the steps surrounded by children, and Ali I was told, was inside sound asleep.

The chair of honor was produced, Ali was kicked out of bed, and I was treated to a plate of rice and sauce and fish.

Ali was aware he’d missed our appointment. I was glad of that because it was he who had made it, strenuously and without consultation or explanation the day before. He said he was at the mosque praying until 3:00 a.m. and so had slept till just now. Ali had described himself as a not very devout Muslim the day before. He did not keep the fast and he did not pray the required five times a day. I reflected that going to the mosque at 3:00 in the morning was pretty good for someone who was not devout.

And there were more surprises. Ramadan was in fact not over. I’d had an inkling of this through a report on the BBC’s Focus on Africa, a program that has rapidly become a fixture in my life. The story was that in Somalia there was fighting between armed Muslim groups over whether or not Ramadan was really over. Ramadan follows the lunar calendar and is declared over upon the first sighting of the new moon. Some men in Bamako, Mali, claimed to have seen the moon. Formal written declarations were made and based on that the month of fasting was to end today. But the veracity of their claim was disputed hotly and many people had been killed. A report today comes out of Kenya that Muslims were rioting there to force the closure of some bars that in their eyes had opened prematurely. And according to Ali it was announced over radio and television last night that the religious authorities in Guinea had decreed one more day of fasting. (I assume that’s at least one more day depending on whether the new moon is spotted tonight.)

Considering this information I wondered if Junior really had come to formally greet me or had just shown up on a whim. If the latter I’ve probably set him on a lifelong path of knocking on the doors of tourists. Do so and they invite you in and shower you with gifts and money.

Ali seemed very groggy compared to his normally sprightly self and I sensed my appearance was throwing a monkey wrench into the rhythm of his day so I made a move to leave. At the last second Ali mentioned he was going to the mosque at 2:00, in twenty minutes. I still tread very carefully around all things Muslim and hesitantly inquired if it was okay if I went with him just to see the mosque from the outside. He said that would be fine and if I would go back to the hotel he’d quickly wash up and then pick me up on his way. That was three hours ago. I fell asleep on my bed while waiting and wondered if I’d missed his knock but just now Junior showed up with a note. It was an apology from Ali. Something had suddenly come up that he had to do and he would be here at 7:00 tonight.

This flexible and irregular approach to time and appointments and arrangements is not entirely new to me but is something that I’ve never been able to adjust to. I’d like to but I don’t know how. It seems to me that the only possible resolution would be to never make appointments and arrangements. An appointment by definition comes with a time. And never making appointments and arrangements implies wandering around in a fog, a daze of nothingness.

And I know full well that if roles were reversed and I made an appointment with Ali and then never showed up for it he would be quite upset with me. I was constantly being upbraided by people in Conakry for not keeping appointments I didn’t even know I’d made. If I’m not here at 7:00 tonight and Ali shows up I’ll have some serious explaining to do.

 

Small things continue to amuse and entertain. I see something and find out later I’ve totally misinterpreted it based on my own preconceived notions. From the balcony of the City Friends restaurant near the Residence Kaporo in Conakry I saw some young boys standing at the side of the road, holding their hands out to cars and jingling coins. I assumed they were begging and was surprised that when I walked past them they didn’t even glance at me let alone beg from me. The next day, eating my Christmas breakfast, I saw them again and watched them more carefully. Then I figured out that they weren’t begging at all but offering a change service to the taxis and taxi mini vans. They held 990 francs in coins in their hands and would exchange them for 1,000-franc notes. The ten francs they kept from each exchange was their commission and profit.

Today I saw a carnival game of chance and skill in the market. I think it was one of those premature celebrations of the end of Ramadan. Luckily the Guineans chose not to riot but clamoured for their chance to try their luck.

The game was a basic ring toss. An area about ten feet by twenty feet had been roped off and on the ground were around twenty glass and plastic dishes and bowls of various sizes. The object was to throw a plastic ring so that it settled completely around the dish. I assumed the dishes were numbered or marked in some way and each represented a different prize.

I asked Aisha about it and she laughed and explained that the dishes themselves were the prizes.

And yesterday I’d assumed something that set everybody to laughing. I was curious about the prayer beads and asked Ali about them. He explained there were one hundred of them and after praying a devout Muslim might, for example, want to call God’s name one hundred times. He would say, “Allah, Allah, Allah,…” moving one bead with his thumb and finger with each “Allah.” When he’d gone all the way around and reached the beginning again he’d know he’d said it one hundred times. In this way he’d build up credit with God.

One set of prayer beads interested me particularly and I asked about them. Each bead was decorated with a pattern of dots and circles. I wanted to know the religious significance of these dots and circles, the deep meaning and philosophy they represented.

The owner of the beads was confused and spoke to Ali for a while. Then Ali translated and told me the purpose of the dots.

“They look nice. Like dice.”

 

Wednesday, December 27 9:00 p.m.

One thing I’m glad of in coming to Guinea is that it has begun to put a human face on Islam for me. I’m not talking about learning history or points of doctrine but simply getting to know humans who, oh by the way, just happen to be Muslim. It’s difficult in Canada, through basic media sources, to see this human face beyond the frightening image we have of Islam, always associated with violence.

This is on my mind before I go to sleep tonight because of a singular experience I had with Ali. He kept his appointment this evening (forty-five minutes late but good enough for the government). He explained the mysterious errand he mentioned in his note that kept him from coming at 2:00. As one of the few literate men in his mosque and as a teacher, the Imam asked him to help in preparing a census of the poorest families who without help might not have enough food tomorrow to celebrate Ramadan. There are five mosques in Coyah for a population of 47,000 people. Within his mosque they determined that there were three hundred very poor families that required help. The Koran does not require or demand donations for the end of Ramadan but for those that can afford it it suggests a donation of twenty cups of rice from each person. A family of five would therefore donate one hundred cups of rice. These donations are to be made before the morning of the end of Ramadan when everyone goes to the praying field. (They use the soccer pitches in Coyah because the mosques cannot accommodate all the people at once.) Ali explained that the timing of the donations was important. Donations made after you pray were accepted but did not accrue to your account of good deeds in heaven.

This year has been a difficult one for Ali, in fact for everyone in Guinea, and because of the timing of this year’s holidays (people won’t get paid their month’s salaries till the end of the month, after the holidays) his family has little enough food for themselves and cannot afford to give to the poor. In fact the whole discussion began when I suggested we go out for a drink rather than sit in my room and he said that frankly he would prefer me not to buy him a beer but take the money I would have spent and donate it to the Imam and the poor in his name.

I was intrigued by this whole idea and asked Ali if a non Muslim could make his own donation. Ali was delighted by this idea and we got ready to go pay a visit to the Imam.

I have to admit that helping the poor of Coyah was less on my mind than the opportunity to meet the Imam personally. As a tourist in a country like Guinea you soon feel that everyone is after your money and “the poor” which is such an emotional concept from a distance becomes much less clear in the flesh. It’s a shock for instance to find that quite often you don’t really like the poor. There are quite as many unpleasant types among the poor as among the rich and your ideas of charity make some profound changes. But the Imam was very concrete, a person I could meet.

I gave Ali enough money for him to make the standard donation on behalf of his family and we set off in the dark. We found the Imam at his home relaxing in a chair watching TV while his mother was filling small plastic bags with water and tying them off to be refrigerated and sold. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. Perhaps an old man with a flowing beard, poring over ancient leather bound books. I certainly wasn’t expecting this young man in shorts and a tank top with the rippling muscles.

We sat in chairs opposite the muscle bound Imam and Ali launched into the long story that brought us there. Both he and the Imam were concerned that I understood that this donation of twenty cups of rice really was in the Koran and they offered to show me the passage in an English copy that Ali possessed. They also pressed on me that the Koran forbids lying and therefore they were compelled to tell me that the value of twenty cups of rice isn’t quite 5,000 francs but was somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 francs. But if I wished to donate 5,000 francs as Ali and I had decided that was fine.

Ali reached into his shirt pocket and counted out the 20,000 francs I’d given him for his family’s donation. Then he turned to me.

“Now it’s your turn,” he said and I gave the Imam my 5,000.

The Imam clearly felt more should happen here and offered to instruct me in the Muslim faith if I wished to convert. I declined as politely as I could and Ali and I took our leave but not before the Imam showed me the actual plastic cup that would be used to measure out my donation of rice. I mused that he could very well have won it in that morning’s ring toss game.

 

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